Our Georgia History

The Siege and Battle of Savannah

By Randy Golden
Exclusively for Our Georgia History

On July 22, 1779, royal governor James Wright returned to Savannah, charged with maintaining the peace. His first act was to roll back all laws to 1775, essentially ending the established revolutionary government and the state of Georgia, at least as far as the Loyalists were concerned. With him were an entire staff of supporters including a vice-governor and justice of the courts.

Major General Benjamin Lincoln, recently appointed Southern commander of the Continental Army, realized that the loss of Savannah was key and set out to regain the coastal Georgia port. His first task was to raise 5,000 men. Second, since raising a navy was out of the question, he tried to contact Admiral Valerie D'estaing, whose French fleet had been raiding British outposts in the Carribean Sea. D'estaing's naval support, comprised of some twenty-two line ships, about half that many support ships and 4,000 men was the only way to ensure that British ships could not arrive to supply and support the town.

While Lincoln was preparing his troops, Revolutionary Georgia continued its organization of a government in exile. From Heard's Fort (now abandoned, in Wilkes County) John Wereat was selected to head the executive branch of government. This was really a safety measure so that if the council could not form a quorum decisions could be made. Meanwhile, it was as if the loss of Savannah woke the American government to the danger of losing the South. Washington dispatched General Casimir Pulaski and his "Polish Legion" to the southern front. Pulsaki had been busy rewriting the book on cavalry tactics and training American cavalry officers. The term "Polish Legion" has all but been abandoned by modern historians because it is viewed as misleading.

Savannah proper lay on a low plateau, some 40 feet above the Savannah River. On both the left and right sides marshes created tough obsticles through which to advance. In front of the city a cleared plain of small rolling hills made it impossible for a large group of men to advance without being seen from the redoubts that encircled the city. These were the very reasons that James Oglethorpe chose the site in 1733. It was easily defended by a relatively small group of men against attacks by the Spanish or the Creek Indians. Defenses, in some cases dating back almost 50 years could be used by the British to protect themselves.

On September 1, 1779, D'estaing arrived east of Savannah. Had he been as bold as Lt. Col. Archibald Campbell had been less than a year earlier, he probably could have captured the city by himself. Instead, he formed a line and waited for the Continental Army. General Prevost also set to work on the city's defenses, ordering boats grounded along the bank of the river, then manned defensively. He also ordered a group of 800 men under the command of Col. John Maitland in Beaufort, South Carolina to hold their position, but be ready to advance in support of the city if needed.

Benjamin Lincoln left Charleston and joined General Lachlan McIntosh at Ebenezer. From here the Continental Army advanced and began to take position around the city on September 9. With the arrival of the opposing force, Governor James Wright ordered able-bodied men to assist in building Savannah's defenses. Both Lincoln and D'estaing knew that the siege would not be of long duration, for Britain would find out about the naval blockade and send enough ships to break through D'estaing's line. It was the belief of the American commanders that the British would surrender if their escape routes were cut.

Finally, on September 16, 1779, General Lincoln and Commander D'estaing met at D'estaing's headquarters in Thunderbolt and work began on "completing the encirclement." Admiral D'estaing issued a surrender demand to General Augustine Prevost. As Prevost considered the demand (which he eventually rejected), his men worked feverishly on improving Savannah's defenses. The city of Savannah was fully invested on September 23, although Prevost did call for the troops from Beaufort, who apparently got through the Patriots with little difficulty.

Actual siege preparations were completed on September 23. For the next 2 weeks British troops, Loyalist Tories and Negro slaves continued to work on the defenses of Savannah while Benjamin Lincoln did little to improve his position. By October 4th no progress had been made towards a British surrender, so Admiral D'estaing moved his ships into position and began a naval bombardment of the city. This did not deter the British, who continued their task of improving the city's defenses. Finally Lincoln and D'estaing agreed to attack the British positions across a broad front on October 9th. Admiral D'estaing's plan called for five groups would move forward, concentrating on a salient in the British line at Spring Hill (present-day vicinity of Louisville Rd., MLK Boulevard and Liberty St., near the Savannah Visitor's Center), where a group of South Carolina militia appeared to be holding the line.

The day broke cool, with a morning breeze from the ocean. Some of the finest American officers were now involved including Lincoln, McIntosh, Count Casimir Pulaski, leader of the Polish Legion, and Lt. Col Francis "The Swamp Fox" Marion. Pulaski had earned his Brigadier star after the battle of Brandywine, where his combined cavalry and light infantry legion saved the Continental Army from disaster. General Pulaski and Col. Marion expressed strong disagreement with the plan proposed by Admiral D'estaing, but obeyed orders. As the five units attacked the British resistance stiffened. Still, Continental soldiers broke through the redoubt in at least two places near Spring Hill. As the Americans carried the wall of the redoubt, the colors were planted to show the soldiers the breach in the line. Suddenly, British Regulars under the command of Col. John Maitland (the reserves called up by General Prevost) advance and turn back the combined French and Continental Army.

Sgt. William Jasper, trying to rally his men to hold the line against the British grabbed the colors from the wall of the Spring Hill redoubt. He was struck and mortally wounded by British fire. The American line at the redoubt began to crumble under the intense pressure of Maitland's Regulars. General Pulaski, seeing the line pull back, rode up and tried to rally the men as well when he was mortally wounded by cannister. Pulaski and Jasper are carried back by retreating Americans, but the colors remained in British hands.

Pulaski was taken to The Wasp and was buried at sea on October 15, 1779. Both the American and the French remained in the area until October 16, when Lincoln began an orderly withdrawal to Charleston. D'estaing set sail for France over a two day period begining October 19. Lt. Colonel John Maitland, who had advanced from Beaufort, South Carolina in support of General Augustine Prevost died on October 22, not the victim of the battle but because of disease.

Next: There Comes a Reaper

Acts Of War
Georgia in 1763
Sugar Act; Stamp Act
Townshend Acts
The House dissolved
Radicals Gain Power
Georgia joins the Continental Congress
A Colony at War
A State and Union Formed
The First Florida Expedition
A Leader Dies
The Second Florida Expedition
The Third Florida Expedition
Britain Attacks Georgia
Georgia Fight Backs
The Siege and Battle of Savannah
There Comes a Reaper
The Liberation of Georgia

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